Barrymore and Plummer – both cut from choice but flawed thespian cloth. As In Spite of Myself recounts, Plummer’s early years were marked by the same volatile admixture of restless ambition, gnawing insecurity, obnoxious hubris, and an unrestrained appetite for alcohol, women and more alcohol.
He drank, he insists, not to exorcise the demons of a miserable childhood. Indeed, though raised by a single mother on the family estate at Senneville on Montreal’s West Island – his parents divorced when he was an infant; he barely knew his father – the young Plummer (great-grandson of a Canadian prime minister, John Abbott) was lavished with love, attention and, not incidentally, a library of classics (in French and English), which he devoured.
Exposed to opera, symphony, theatre and books, Plummer hardly needed the university education he rejected, walking out of his McGill entrance exam. Besides, by then he was already in love with acting and determined to give it a try.
Strip joints, dalliances and trysts
No, the very incarnation of Shakespeare’s Puck, “merry wanderer of the night,” he caroused (a) because he thoroughly enjoyed it, and (b) because it helped disguise his painful shyness and lack of confidence. “It was pretty self-destructive, that era,” says Plummer. “Everyone drank. It was the fashion.” In the theatre, he had learned the power to command. But offstage, “I was in serious trouble.”
Although performances seldom suffered, his life became a moveable feast of late-night strip joints and watering holes, dalliances and trysts, sometimes reckless. Seated, and almost fully clothed, he once made love to a married woman with her unsuspecting husband in the same room. Another time, he and a female companion decided to take a bath together – at someone else’s party. And there were legendary revels with Jason Robards Jr. and Rex Harrison, two other world-class drunks.
He managed to avoid harder drugs. “They were just coming in,” he recalls. “I never did anything stronger than marijuana, and it bored me to tears. But “booze picked me up,” he says. “I loved booze.”
As an actor, Plummer was always the alpha dog. When Stratford opened in 1953 – without him – he cried into a bottle in Manhattan, devastated not to be a part of it. When a kidney stone briefly hospitalized him during a run of Henry V at Stratford in 1956, Plummer wasn’t sure which felt worse – the crushing pain in his abdomen (he was initially convinced it was syphilis) or the thought that his understudy, fellow Montrealer William Shatner, would replace him and reap the accolades.
Though he appeared frequently on TV and in film, he preferred the stage. That same summer, studio mogul David O. Selznick turned up, offering leading roles in The Sun Also Rises and Tender is the Night. Plummer was 26. “I was among the anointed, my future guaranteed.” Plummer agonized over the dilemma – he needed to get laid, he said, and promptly did – but ultimately said no to the most important man in Hollywood. He’d been promised a shot at Hamlet the next summer and couldn’t pass it up.
When he next returned to the Festival in the mid-sixties, he was a certified star – and behaved like one. One year, scheduled to appear in Antony and Cleopatra opposite Zoe Caldwell, Plummer was missing in action when rehearsals began. A rebellious murmur arose from the cast, suggesting that a local actor could serve just as well; Plummer wasn’t needed. Word of the gathering insurrection must have reached him. He finally arrived. Flinging open the theatre doors, he strode imperiously down the aisle, saluted director Michael Langham and, bending Caldwell backward, planted a full-on, deep-mouth kiss – as if to say, ‘I’m here now. We may begin.’
‘ You are not a charming drunk’
By then, two marriages had sundered – the first, to actress Tammy Grimes, produced daughter Amanda, now a theatrical force in her own right. He was, he concedes, a terrible husband and a worse father: “I was simply never there.” For years, he and Amanda were estranged and never spoke. But they have since reconciled and the relationship now, he says, is “perhaps better than ever.”
In the early sixties, he fell in love with beautiful Fleet Street journalist Patricia Lewis. One early morning, returning home from a night on the town, she drove her Triumph convertible into a pillar near Buckingham Palace. Plummer, miraculously, escaped with scratches, but Lewis sustained serious injuries and was left partly disfigured. Plummer did the honourable thing – he married her – but Lewis started to drink more heavily and the relationship was never the same.
He met Taylor, an actress and dancer, in 1969, on the set of a forgettable Restoration comedy, Lock Up Your Daughters! – not an inapt title for a film with Plummer. They married the following year, in the same Montreal church that Richard Burton and another Taylor, Elizabeth, had been wed. Only then did he start to reform, literally pouring bottles of scotch and gin down the drain.